Frontal Obscurity

The Locust were Vulcans; now they're from Mars.

The Locust The Grog Shop, 2785 Euclid Heights Boulevard, Cleveland Heights 9 p.m. Monday, April 9, $12 ADV/$14 DOS, 216-321-5588
Who the hell knows which Locust is Joey Karam?
Who the hell knows which Locust is Joey Karam?
Near the end of summer 2000, I was waiting for the Locust outside a Mexican joint in San Diego. Gold Sound Laboratories had just released the group's debut LP, a brash fusion of violent hardcore and arty synthesizers, and San Diego's underground scene was one of the hippest in America -- had been, in fact, since the rise of Gravity Records in the mid-'90s. No matter what city you called home during the Y2K crisis, kids wandered your streets dressed like the Locust (just ask This Moment in Black History, who also recorded for GSL). We called 'em Vulcans -- as in Mr. Spock meets SoCal punk meets Iggy-fried glam rock. Of course, the pages of Alternative Press would serve as a chronicle of how the Warped/emocore universe consumed this look (jet-black hair and threads, punk belts -- all with a touch of Dilbert), ultimately transforming into a mainstream consumable.

And now the dudes who helped usher in this style were pulling up beside me. Under a massive California sun -- one that soaked the asphalt and palm trees in a platinum haze -- three dark stains crawled out of a vintage black-and-chrome station wagon. It felt like a Munsters outtake.

Just 12 months later, however, the fickle hipster nation had tired of stealing its wardrobe from San Diego. "People wanted to glom onto the most ridiculous claims about how we all dressed the same," says Joey Karam, phoning from his home in Long Beach.

Like true punks, the Locust diffused its detractors by radically embracing their criticisms; If you think we look alike now, get a load of THIS. In 2001, the quartet enlisted Los Angeles designer Ben Warwas to transform them into four anonymous dudes wrapped head-to-toe in identical body suits. Of course, on some level, all the hip mask-rock then busting out of Providence, Rhode Island, informed the new outfits. Back in 2000, Karam and Justin Pearson talked enthusiastically about such Ocean State exports as Load Records, Forcefield, and the mighty Lightning Bolt. And why not? Not since the days of the Velvet Underground and Warhol's Factory had a scene put together such a stunning fusion of sight and sound.

But there existed serious stylistic differences. "I like all those bands, like Lightning Bolt, but I didn't want any sort of hippie influence," Warwas now explains, pointing out the rough-hewn aesthetic then common to many Load bands. "I didn't want that dirty look. I wanted a clean, futuristic look. The Locust has all those synthesizers, and I wanted to make them look like some weird future-rockers who have just come out of a spaceship.

"But it's also an East Coast/West Coast thing, and it needed to be different." And so it was.

As a visual artist working with musicians, Warwas not only tapped the fundamental themes coursing through the Locust's visceral yet hyperpointillist brand of cybercore; he assisted in fusing the band into a kind of homoerotic, dystopian vision -- one which falls dead-center within the triangle of Burroughs' Naked Lunch, Corrosion of Conformity's Animosity, and Meet the Residents. Call it robotic insects from outer space who dig S&M.

"Ben's clothes afford us a way of stepping outside ourselves, when we're actually playing and into our characters -- becoming more of a unit," says Karam.

The dark, absurdist world that this strange little unit started to inhabit was further enhanced by their quasi-comic-book, sci-fi album art (designed by illustrator Neil Burke) as well as their futuro-cutups: "One Manometer Away From Mutually Assured Relocation," "Late for a Double Date With a Pile of Atoms in the Water Closet," and -- a personal fave -- "Gluing Carpet to Your Genitals Does Not Make You a Cantaloupe."

But here's the real beauty of all this: The Locust has single-handedly reversed an age-old trend in the music industry. The weirder the band gets, the more popular it actually becomes, culminating in a record deal in 2003 with ANTI- (home to Tom Waits, Neko Case, and . . . Merle Haggard, of all people). By cultivating a full-blown multimedia experience, however cryptic and bizarre, the band gives kids (and adults) a kind of mythology to live inside. It's no different, really, from Tolkien. Or Kiss.

As for the latest outfits, with their fake fur and reflective Scotchlite? "They're the weirdest so far," Karam says. And the music has followed suit. None of the band's peers from way back, including heavies like the VSS and Nebraska's Armatron, ever found a way to fuse thrashed-out hardcore and screaming electronics on an organic level. But the Locust has, thanks in part to Karam's massive, homemade modular-synth -- which looks as Martian as the band's costumes. "The beautiful thing about an instrument like this is that it affords you a way of working around traditionally mapped-out synthesizer sounds," says Karam, a gearhead who orders the bulk of his modules from a Texas company called Synthesis Technology ("Home of the MOTM Analog Modular Synthesizer!").

Those novel sounds can be heard (and often felt) all over the Locust's brand-new disc, New Erections. Unfolding less like a collection of discrete tracks and more like a titanic chunk of sculpted static, the music mixes lower-chakra grunt rock, nasty prog throwdowns, industrial/no-wave paranoia, and compositions with no discernible antecedent -- just intuitively controlled chaos. Though it lasts just 23 minutes, the disc is as complex and intricate as a beehive (sorry to switch insects).

But for all the Locust's radical evolution, its music remains rooted in California hardcore. "There's so much more that can be done with it," says Karam, who adamantly believes -- like Black Flag and the Minutemen before him -- that hardcore is meant to be experimented with, not reduced to dogma. "None of us ended up in metalcore or straight-up metal. We never really abandoned that, because it's really a part of us."

Something else that's a part of them: body odor. The bandmates sweated like pigs before Warwas came on board; ever since, they've taken it up a notch or three. "They're really miserable to wear onstage," Karam says of the costumes.

"They don't wash them," explains Warwas. "This photographer I met on their tour, she said that when she met them, she walked by where all their outfits were hanging, and she was like, Oh God."

"So they smelled bad?"

"They smelled so bad."

Of course, this too fits nicely into the Locust mythology -- simply spin "Recyclable Body Fluids in Human Form" sometime.

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